Jen Gunderman: Onstage, on tour and in the classroom

A self-described “Swiss Army knife” of talents, musicology professor Jen Gunderman discusses her life from touring with big names to teaching at Vanderbilt

Gundermen rocking the accordion. (Photo credit

Evan Monk and Niya Newell

Jen Gunderman turns the conventional view of a working professor on its head. While she keeps it somewhat traditional with lecture notes and lesson plans, Gunderman keeps busy touring cross-country with top-tier musicians like Sheryl Crow. Coming up on her 15th year as a professor of musicology in the Blair School of Music, Gunderman provides students with a rare behind-the-scenes look at the life of a practicing musician. 

In her musicology classes on women in rock and the history of rock and roll, Gunderman focuses on the cultural side of music. Just hours later, the professor can be found performing backup vocals, keyboard and percussion for Sheryl Crow’s 2019 “Threads” album tour. This isn’t Gunderman’s first time working with Crow, and certainly not her first touring gig, but her dedication to teaching is handled with the same importance. 

“There isn’t a typical day. Some days I’m traveling, some days I’m here at Vanderbilt and some days I’m in Nashville at a recording studio making records,” Gunderman said.

Though she initially worried that her two passions would prove mutually exclusive, she discovered that administrators at Vanderbilt were interested in hybrid online learning environments. Now, she uses filmed lectures and puts them into an online course platform for her students to see and study, including live videos from backstage. These online classe supplements work in conjunction with Gunderman’s time spent in the classroom and help show her life as a working musician. 

Gunderman knew from a young age how to make the most of her talents. As an artist, she accredits herself with being flexible to her environment and versatile in her performances, a skill she learned as a child, accompanying at her church in Topeka, Kansas.

“I’m not one of those heroic types. Like, I’m not gonna take a lead solo and shred, you know. But I think I’m kind of like a Swiss Army knife. I can sing a little, shake a tambourine, play the organ and figure out what the song needs to make it work, and I think that comes from my background accompanying,” Gunderman said.

The professor also took the time to talk about the effect of her music career on her students and their trajectories. 

“I think students like the fact that I’m actually doing what I’m teaching about. With that being said, I never want my students to feel like they’re coming second to anything. I’ve been able to hook people up with internships and opportunities in town by staying in contact with the working musician community,” Gunderman said.

Sophomore Brynn Demers took Gunderman’s History of Rock class and is currently taking her course on Women in Rock. Demers considers the professor/performer one of her favorite faculty members at Vanderbilt. 

Demers says that one of the coolest aspects of being Gunderman’s student is the stories Gunderman brings back from her touring life, such as a benefit concert for Elton John or her experience on the Tonight Show. Even the professor’s assignments reflect her role as a performer. 

“For History of Rock, one of our papers was to go to a rock concert in Nashville and write about it. What other class would have going to your favorite band’s concert as a homework assignment?” Demers said. 

With so many gigs under her belt, Gunderman struggled to pick just one favorite artist from the myriad with which she’s performed. Chris Stapleton and Emmylou Harris were some of her top contenders, but eventually she landed on one name that stood out above the rest: gospel and R&B singer Mavis Staples.

“The power of her singing is intense. I remember at the rehearsal I started crying. She was so amazing,” Gunderman said.

After so many years in the industry, the professor draws on both the talent of other performers and her own intrinsic love for her art to help her stay inspired to continue performing and teaching about music. 

“It’s very easy for me to be enthusiastic about music. I feel very grateful that that is true,” Gunderman said. “Since my husband and I moved to Nashville, there have been so many generations of other young, aspiring musicians who have come here who are constant inspirations to me.”

The talented professor also spoke to the plight of the young, aspiring musician and advises those looking to perform professionally to get out and explore their communities.

“I would encourage young musicians to find their people. Figure out where the venues are that are playing the music you love, go to those venues and find the musicians that make music the way you love music to be made,” Gunderman said.  “Find out how to get booked, make your composition on Garageband on your phone if you have to. Just hustle.”